What Are Tintypes?


What Are Tintypes?

We’ve all heard the argument, “X is better than Y because Y is cheaper and easier to make. Therefore, it is less than and not worthy.” There’s an appreciation for older methods like film photography and cakes made from scratch because they can be harder to create and require a level of expertise. However, Funfetti cakes are super fun to eat, and John loves being able to take his digital camera everywhere to capture as many photos as he wants until his batteries die. Something may be cheaper and easier to make, but that doesn’t mean it is worthless.

People have made this argument throughout history, so it shouldn’t be surprising to hear that some people scorned tintype photography as holding little artistic value. In The Tintype in America 1856-1880, Janice G. Schimmelman writes, “the word tintype evoked that same perception of something with little or no value.” At the time, tintypes were seen as novelty items, and photographic artists belittled tintype photographers and their craft because they were different from themselves. 

Today, the tintype is a prized piece of family history. People marvel over the images. They love the medium, the subjects, and the feeling of possessing something that withstood the test of time. In fact, some tintypes are highly collectible. A popular and important part of photographic history, tintypes are interesting images.

What are tintypes?

Despite having “tin” in the name, tintypes, also known as ferrotypes or melainotypes, were made with a thin iron. Photographers created a direct positive on a sheet of iron that is blackened by painting, lacquering, or enameling and is used as a support for a collodion photographic emulsion. It only takes a few minutes to produce the photograph once the picture is taken. The images often vary in size. A common size is 2 ½” x 4 – 4 ½”, and the smallest size is about the size of a postage stamp. 

tintypesTintypes were portable, cheap, and fast to make. They came onto the scene in 1853 and were used through 1930. Photographers could easily sell their services at fairs or travel to battlefields. Some of the most common subjects were Civil War fields and soldiers, who would send photos home to loved ones. The Maryland Museum of Military History acquired an entire company of Civil War soldiers, and we restored and preserved the images for display in their museum.

Some Americans preferred the ten-minute tintype process as opposed to booking an appointment and the wait that came with other forms of photography. Tintypes allowed people to be at ease and less formal in pose and setting. Schimmelman points out that Americans wore work clothes and brought meaningful objects with them for their portrait. These items “defined who they were” and conveyed their role in society. Some people would have fun in their photos, playing games, smoking cigars, playing instruments, or wearing costumes. Children posed with pets. Tintypes were also used to capture the deceased in remembrance photos. Tintypes were affordable and fast, which allowed more people to have access to photography.

Tintypes Today

When people purchased tintypes, they typically put the images in albums or Bibles. You can see a sample of an album on the Library of Congress website. Some tintypes came in cases, but most were in paper mats or unprotected. If the images were loose, they became scratched, crazed, or bent, which is usually how we see them today. Humidity can cause a tintype to rust, and this causes pieces of the image to crack and flake.

Tintypes are sensitive to light and should not be scanned or displayed in rooms with bright light. The Library of Congress recommends storing tintypes flat in acid-free paper envelopes or (if undamaged) in polyester sleeves. You should avoid handling the original with your fingertips as the oils will further damage the piece. Depending on the condition, a professional will be able to preserve the original and reproduce to create a restoration. 

While some people may have originally dismissed the tintype as a cheap novelty, people value the personal and photographic history the tintype provides. The photographer R.E. Wood wrote, “My heavy pocket makes me happy, and I say with emphasis, that as happiness is the great end and aim of human life, we may as well get it from ‘tintypes’ as any other source.”


Learn more about photo history and photo restoration in our guide, Getting Started: Photo Restoration.